Maybe this blog post should come with the warning that there is a severe chance that you will spend money after reading it ... The Abegg-Stiftung has published a new book. In English this time! Some years ago, they conserved the altarpiece from El Burgo de Osma and the new book describes in incredible detail what they have found out about the embroidery. From the materials used to the order of work. It is so detailed that a skilled embroiderer or group of embroiderers could make a copy. Now that's a book worth having on your shelf. Even if it means that you will have to eat dry bread for some time to be able to afford it. We are still in the season of Lent so you will fit right in :). Let's explore!
The embroidered altarpiece from El Burgo de Osma is the only one of its kind that has survived to the present day. It was made around AD 1460-1470 in Castille (Spain) for bishop Pedro the Montoya. The altarpiece is currently housed in the Art Institute of Chicago (Inv. no. 1927.1779a-b) and consists of two pieces. The top part shows four scenes: the Nativity on the left, Mary with baby Jesus in the middle with the Crucifixion above and the Adoration of the Magi on the right. The bottom piece shows the Resurrection in the middle flanked by three Apostles on each side. The top part measures 161,5 x 200,5 cm and the bottom part measures 89,5 x 202 cm. Both parts are all-over embroidered with gold and silver threads, coloured silks, spangles and seed pearls.
The main part of the book consists of a 100-page chapter on embroidery materials and techniques written by Bettina Niekamp. She has identified over 200 different combinations of threads and stitches/techniques on the altarpiece. And she describes them in great detail. Together with the many detailed pictures in the book, you are able to identify them all. It will take you a while but it can be done.
Amongst the embroidery techniques is the over-twisted silk technique for rendering realistic tree tops, grassy areas and dirt. This technique is well-known from 17th century English stumpwork. The many padding techniques are also intriguing. There are tubes made of linen fabric and then stuffed with wool to turn them into the base layer of columns. String is then added for extra texture before the actual goldwork embroidery commences.
The embroidery is mainly executed in very skilfully shaded split stitch. But there is a form of or nue too. And for a more realistic depiction of certain details, multi-coloured threads were used. They were made by blending different silk filaments in the needle. The embroidery is also embellished with twists made of different numbers and combinations of passing thread.
The book also has a whole section with full-page plates of the different parts of the embroidery. You can spend hours looking at the amazing detail. Further chapters describe the times and the life of bishop Montoya, its art historical context, the iconography in relation to the material and embroidery techniques used, late medieval embroidery in Aragon and a case study on vestments from Barcelona. With 427 pages, there is a lot to explore!
The book can be ordered directly from the Abegg-Stiftung in Switzerland. It costs CHF 85 + shipping. It does not seem to be available from the Art Institute of Chicago. The fact that this book was published in English instead of German is a real plus. Please let the Abegg-Stiftung know that we like more of that when you are ordering. They might end up translating some of their equally stunning older publications. My Journeyman Patrons can view a short video in which I flick through the book. Also note: Katherine Diuguid is giving a MEDATS lecture on her sampler, which features embroidery techniques seen on the altarpiece, this coming Sunday.
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